Kicking off a new series of guest bloggers, we asked Cindy Lewis, President of Cynthia K. Lewis & Associates, LLC to educator our dear readers about professional evaluators. Here are her tips on selecting an evaluator.
Grant awardees must recognize that evaluation is a key component of effective program management and almost always a mandated requirement from grant funders. Accountability for how programs work compared to what was described in the proposal, especially from federal funding agencies, should be a priority beginning at the Notice of Award. However, finding the right evaluator for your program can be a difficult and time-consuming process – particularly when the evaluator is chosen amidst the grant application submission deadline.
Therefore, the critical first step in selecting a qualified evaluator for a specific program is to assemble a pool of potential evaluators before you need one. Successful grant submissions involve the evaluator in the proposal writing process; therefore, it is best to have an evaluator selected at the time you begin writing your proposal. Including your evaluator in the proposal process ensures that your program has clear goals, measurable objectives, and key evaluation questions that can be tied to your program activities. This demonstrates to the funding agency that accountability and continuity is embedded in your program, not simply an after-thought. “What if I can’t afford to pay an evaluator to help write my proposal?” Worry not! Professional evaluators understand the grant process and will help develop the proposal and evaluation plan “on spec”. This means they only get paid if the grant is funded. If an evaluator requests payment for assisting with the proposal development, it is time to look for another evaluator.
There are generally four types of evaluators: independent contractors; non-profit organizations; for-profit firms; and university faculty. The type of evaluator you choose will depend on your program’s scope (i.e. local, regional, or national), its affiliated discipline, skills and capacity required by the program, and your budget. University faculty members and for-profit evaluation firms will likely charge more for their services due to higher wages and indirect costs. Keep in mind that although funders allow a certain percentage of the budget for evaluation (typically no more than 20%), some do not award funds for indirect costs.
Professional evaluators, regardless of type, rely heavily on referrals, so most rarely advertise their services. Therefore, you will need to do a little research. Request referrals from colleagues in your field who have worked with external evaluators,. You also can check the American Evaluation Association (AEA) website, to find evaluators in your area. Professional grant writers are another good source for identifying reputable evaluators.
Once you have established a list of potential evaluators, you may send each a formal Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or an informal email requesting résumés/CVs of core staff, areas of expertise (i.e. qualitative, quantitative, or mix-methods), fields of interest/experience, sample evaluation plans and letters of recommendation. This is also a good time to ask about their indirect cost rates. Although evaluation is a field that doesn’t require certification, licensure, or even specific degree requirements, a professional evaluator should have a master’s degree in public health, health administration, or similar field. There are times when having an evaluator with a Ph.D. is helpful, but it certainly is not required for conducting a high-quality evaluation.
Ideally, you want to strategize and create your pool of evaluator types who collectively cover a broad array of skills and fields of expertise, so that when you receive a funding announcement that you want to pursue, you are primed to select the candidate that is best suited for the needs of that specific program.
Finally, working closely with your evaluator during the proposal writing process, and throughout the entire program, will ensure the evaluation results help inform program decisions, highlight areas of success, and opportunities for improvement. Isolating evaluators from program activities or only involving them at the end of the program or during reporting periods will significantly reduce the utility of the evaluation. Remember, evaluators are not there to micromanage your program or assign blame. They are there to help you make continuous quality improvement decisions for ultimate program success.